A BJP government fearful of a powerful ordnance workers’ strike, turns vindictive

The Essential Defence Services Ordinance 2021 (EDSO) that was introduced by the Government of India late last night (Wednesday, 30 June 2021) is the most recent attack of the BJP government on the democratic right of workers to collective bargaining and their right to protest. The NTUI condemns this deplorable and undemocratic act of this government.

What the EDSO does in one stroke is outlaw all forms of democratic protest, including the right to strike, in any workplace that is a provider of and to ‘essential defence services’.

The EDSO opens up several questions about the process of decision making and intentions of the BJP government. As it happens, there was a meeting of the Union Cabinet yesterday afternoon which was followed by a press conference. No announcement was made at this press conference or at any point that such an ordinance would be issued by the government. Does this mean that ordinances are being issued by the BJP government without reference to even the Union Cabinet? It also raises the critical issue of the possible circumstances that prompted this extraordinary and sudden late-night emergency decision?

Reality is that the BJP government is feeling that it is under attack from the people of the county and its working class. This is a government that acts with vendetta against those who stand up to it. This is a government that is turning on 80,000 workers at the 41 Ordnance Factories across the country which it seeks to privatise.

The BJP government has, ever since it came to government in 2014, attempted to privatise the ordnance factories. It was stalled in August 2019 by a powerful strike of all ordnance workers led by a joint front of all trade unions. The fear of another strike pre-empted further action in 2020. Faced with a grave fiscal situation and a government discredited over its failure to guide the country through the pandemic’s second wave the BJP thought it would be wise to show its intent by unilaterally announcing the corporatisation of the ordnance factories as a prelude to privatisation. Faced with a notice of strike from 26 July 2021 from the united front of ordnance workers unions the BJP government unfamiliar with the ways of dialogue has decided to turn on the workers with the EDSO.

Even so, with the draconian Essential Services Maintenance Act 1981 (ESMA), whose remit covers a range of workplaces including defence establishments, still in place what is the need for this ordinance? For the most part the EDSO is a copy of the ESMA but there are two sharp differences.

First EDSO widens the definition of strike, going beyond cessation of work, to include ‘go slow, sit down, stay in, token strike, sympathetic strike or mass casual leave’ [Section 2(1)b]. This is an overarching definition open to the widest possible interpretation of any form of protest including possibly a solidarity action by non ‘essential defence service’ workers.

Second the definition of ‘essential defence services’ is all encompassing. It includes all production and service activities in establishments ‘connected with defence [Section 2(1)a i & ii]. What this means is that it would include catering workers at an ordnance board factory. Worse still it could include the steel workers who struck work yesterday. All steel mills in the country make a range of steel products that go into armaments. Taken to its logical extreme it could include just about any worker. The issuance of this retrograde and all-encompassing ordinance on the very night the government faced the wrath of 150,000+ steel workers across the country in its steel plants cannot be merely coincidental.

Prime Minster Narendra Modi has ridiculed his predecessors for dragging the country down with outdated laws. He’s just pulled out a regressive 50 year old law, with its roots in colonial World War II orders, hardened it and will now sell it as ‘modern’ and in the ‘national interest’.

It also appears that Mr. Modi and his BJP have lost faith in their own Labour Codes which they hammered through in their typical undemocratic extra parliamentary manner in September 2020. Did the Industrial Relations Code 2020 not abrogate to the Executive power to declare ‘any’ industry a ‘public utility’ effectively barring all workers from striking.

The EDSO has a single objective: spreading fear amongst ordnance factory workers. Fear of being dismissed. Fear of being fined. Fear of being charged with criminal action. Fear of being jailed.

The truth is Mr. Modi and his BJP fear the wrath of ordnance factory workers. Mr. Modi and his BJP fear a militant, democratic and united working class.

The NTUI calls for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the EDSO as it affirms its commitment to stand with ordnance factory workers in defence of their rights.

A suppression of one worker’s rights is a suppression of every worker’s right.

Let Mr. Modi and his BJP be mindful that history is painted red with resistance against attacks on the right of the working class to engage in ‘combination or concerted’ action. This right has been won over two centuries by breaking tyrannical laws through democratic protest. That resistance will go on. This resistance will grow. This resistance will get stronger.

Workers of the World Unite!
Inquilab Zindabad!

Gautam Mody
General Secretary